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A Case Study on Reading Instruction in Early Foreign Language Immersion

The ACIE Newsletter, February 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

By Tiia H. Korppi, 2nd grade teacher, Kulosaari Bilingual School, Helsinki, Finland


This case study arose from my own fascination with literacy education in early immersion programs: the idea of first and second graders learning to read and write in a language that they barely knew how to speak seemed intriguing. A review of the literature on second language (L2) reading and reading instruction in immersion programs, revealed that this great challenge can indeed be met successfully, but that it also requires a special understanding of second language acquistion and reading development from the educators involved in the process. In order to see how reading instruction is carried out in a real early immersion context, and how the various challenges are perceived and responded to, I conducted a case study for my M.A. thesis in one early total immersion program. The findings are briefly discussed in this article.

Students in early immersion programs are presented with a dual challenge of learning to read in both the immersion and their native language. The majority of early total immersion programs introduce reading in the immersion language first, delaying reading instruction in the first language until second or third grade. The rationale behind this practice is to maximize the early exposure to the immersion language (for further description, see Genesee, 1987). Similarly to general academic achievement, the students in immersion programs do not seem to suffer detrimental effects to their reading skills because they are initially taught and encouraged to read in their second language (Genesee, 1976; Lambert, Genesee, Holobow, and Chartrand, 1993; Noonan, Colleaux, and Yackulic, 1997). Nevertheless, studies have also revealed some special concerns that initial reading instruction through a child’s second language can bring. According to Geva and Clifton (1994) and Noonan et al. (1997), reading development during the early years of immersion education can be slower and more frustrating for students, and create certain problems for students for whom learning to read is a struggle.

Research Design

The purpose of the study conducted and reported here was not to build or test theory that could be generalized. Rather, the goal was to find out how reading instruction is carried out, what challenges are perceived by teachers and parents, and how these challenges are addressed in an immersion context. As Walker and Tedick (2000) write, "the what, where, how, why, and when questions can only be answered in terms of how they apply to a particular [immersion context]…" (p.22). This case study allowed me to further explore reading instruction through the eyes of educators and parents of one early total French immersion school. The research questions that guided the study were:

  • What are the characteristics of the study school’s reading program, and what is the theoretical framework supporting the program?
  • What type of theoretical and methodological framework do the teachers use in their reading instruction, and what kind of pedagogical support and training do they receive for reading instruction?
  • How do the parents perceive and understand the school’s reading program, including their role in it?
  • What type of support exists for those students struggling with reading, and how, if at all, is the students’ first language used to facilitate reading development in the immersion language?

Data were gathered through interviews with four first and second grade teachers and the curriculum specialist of the school. The teachers and the curriculum specialist were asked about their educational and teaching background, their views on the school’s reading program, the theories behind second language reading instruction, the benefits and special challenges of the approach the school was using, as well as existing support for struggling readers including the practice of teaching struggling students to read in their first language earlier. Furthermore, the teachers were asked to talk about the support they received or wished to receive to further develop their skill set for teaching reading.

Data from parents of first and second graders were gathered from a written questionnaire. Parents were asked to write about their views of the school’s reading program, their child’s attitude towards reading in both L1 and L2, the level of their child’s reading skills, their joys and concerns about their child’s reading skills, and how well they thought the school had informed them about first and second language reading development and what their role should be in their child’s emerging literacy. Nearly half of the parents (48 of 99 total) returned the questionnaire, revealing the importance to the parents of the issues addressed and questions asked of them.

Summary of findings and Implications for teaching

It was evident that the educators interviewed for this study were overall very knowledgeable about the many factors affecting first and second language reading development and had based their reading curricula on a combination of different methods including phonics and whole language. The educators had carefully considered existing research and theory. All the teachers expressed their belief in forming a strong oral language base in kindergarten, delaying the formal reading instruction in the immersion language until first grade. This has been a common approach in other immersion programs as well (McDougall & Bruck, 1976). However, more recently second language educators are calling this practice into question. For instance, Dr. Mimi Met, an experienced leader in foreign language education in the US, recently argued that as students coming to second language immersion programs already have pre-literacy skills, such as semantic knowledge of the meaning of concepts, as well as an oral language base in their first language, it might be beneficial to expose these students to print versions of L2 oral language beginning as early as kindergarten (personal communication, 2002).

Another important issue that emerged from the data were questions related to the use of students’ first language to support success with literacy development. The possibility of using L1, especially with students struggling with reading, had recently been a topic of discussion in the study school. The teachers were still very reserved about using L1, expressing concern about confusing students by concurrently introducing literacy in two languages. There was also sensitivity towards the need to ensure strong exposure to the immersion language in the lower grades. However, immersion researchers have begun to question these concerns as well. Relying on the principle of the interdependence of languages (Cummins, 1991), Cummins (2000) suggests that students experiencing reading difficulties in the early stages of reading development in immersion programs might be helped through initial literacy development in their native language and the subsequent transfer potential to literacy in the immersion language. Naturally, this needs to be planned carefully and done systematically, paying close attention to keeping the two languages separate.

Summary of Findings and Implications for parent education and involvement

The parents who enroll their child in an immersion program are often well informed about the basic concepts of immersion education, but, as this study revealed, they are particularly interested in the development of their child’s reading skills. Parents tend to compare their child to children in monolingual schools and worry about their child’s first language reading skills. Even though the teachers in the study school had informed the parents about their reading program, including the fact that first language reading instruction would formally start in third grade, delayed reading instruction in the first language was difficult to accept. Some parents even perceived first language reading instruction as their responsibility since the school wasn’t attending to it, and expressed concern over the lack of guidance on how to teach reading to their child.

From these data, it became apparent that parents of immersion students need clear information on the school’s expectations, the program’s unique characteristics, and reasons behind them, in order to avoid misunderstandings and to be well-positioned to support a child’s reading development in concert with the immersion educators. In addition, strong parental involvement in an immersion setting should not be considered a norm by the parents or the teachers, but rather, an additional resource.

Recommendations for Schools and Parents

During the interviews, the teachers discussed a crucial need for further professional development, as well as more cooperation among teachers across the different grade levels. There seemed to be a need for professional development experiences that would support more integrated literacy development practices in the early grades. In particular, a strong need clearly exists for devising strategies to assist teachers in attending to their struggling readers without compromising a child’s exposure to and development of the immersion language.

Perhaps immersion schools need to find even more means to communicate with the parents on how to support the development of reading strategies and build links between first and second language reading. The parents of immersion students do not need to teach reading in L1, but rather, support reading and language development related to school work. This could be done through reading books at home on topics discussed at school, modeling effective reading practices, and reading in different contexts.

To conclude, the intent of this research on the challenges of reading instruction in the immersion context has not been to discourage initiating reading instruction in the target language. On the contrary, the study showed that there has been much success with this approach. However, for some children, learning to read in a second language before they have developed reading skills in their native language presents special challenges. Parents, educators, and administrators of immersion students need to remain open to approaches, such as discretionary use of students’ first language, which will support transfer of skills between languages for struggling readers.

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